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Sunday, September 30, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: BLAMING THE BYSTANDERS?

Many of my readers have worked for companies that employed supervisors whose on-the-job antics were not exactly model behavior. Some manipulated expense reports, justifying it as payback for all the unpaid blood, sweat and tears they'd poured into the business. Others abused their supervisory positions by currying favors from their subordinates in exchange for better work assignments. Still others lacked simple social graces, such as the willingness to thank colleagues for favors.

Then there are those readers lucky enough to work for a wholly different kind of supervisor, the sort who treats employees with respect. I don't hear from them as often, but they're out there.

When I do hear from them, however, it's often because, while their own supervisors are exemplary, their companies also tolerate the behavior of other, far worse supervisors, bad apples whose misbehavior usually is no secret throughout the company.

Outraged employees often tell themselves that top bosses would fire the problem cases if they knew how badly they behaved, but more often than not the bosses do know, but choose to turn a blind eye. Sometimes it's because the bad-behaving supervisor manages to deliver on whatever goals the big bosses have set, and that's enough to keep the bosses happy. And sometimes they are simply afraid of confrontations or worried that to take action will make a bad situation worse.

The question my readers then ask me is whether it's ethical to continue working for a company where such behavior is tolerated. For those who are directly under the thumb of a dysfunctional supervisor, it's often a question less of ethics than of how much misery they can tolerate. But for those who are innocent bystanders, the question is whether they are enablers by association.

There's a terrific story by Ursula K. Le Guin called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." (The story was written in 1973 and appears in the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Stories.) In it Le Guin describes the town of Omelas, an idyllic community where everyone is happy, well-fed, productive and just plain satisfied with life. As the story unfolds, however, the reader learns that there is a single exception to this idyllic state: a young child who sits in a dark room in the basement of a building, where it is fed a small amount of gruel and confined in terrible conditions.

But the community knows that, for its idyllic state to continue, this child must remain in place. Change it, and everything would come tumbling down. All the people know of the child and, upon seeing him, are saddened -- but they know that there is nothing they can do. Yet every year some decide to walk away from Omelas, knowing that wherever else they go will never be as idyllic.

To people working at companies that tolerate bullying bosses, the question seems similar: Are you endorsing their misbehavior by staying?

No -- as long as you don't engage in or encourage the behavior yourself, and are not in a supervisory position over someone responsible for such behavior, merely being in its presence does not make you ethically responsible.

It would be too glib, and too naïve, to advise everyone that the right thing to do in any job at which there are people whose behavior they find distasteful is to leave. Leaving for a place where mutual respect seems higher on the list of management's desires always seems a good option, of course, but many people don't have the luxury of being able to afford to abandon their jobs on this sort of principle. They have to worry about house payments, putting food on the table or otherwise supporting their family.

Besides, they may simply love every other aspect of their jobs and not want to let a bully's misbehavior force them out.

If you choose to stay, the right thing to do is to provide a model of better behavior and, in the process, to improve the working environment for those around you. And, above all, never to allow anyone else's misbehavior to turn you into that person about whom so many readers regularly write me to complain.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

SOUND OFF: WHAT TO DO ABOUT BONDS

After Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run on August 7, breaking Hank Aaron's long-held record, few of my readers took a clear stand on whether they would vote to keep Bonds out of the Hall of Fame based on the allegations of steroid use that have dogged him.

One of the few to take a strong stand was Patrick Burris of Charlotte, N.C., who is unequivocal in his belief that Bonds should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. Unless his guilt is proven, Burris writes, Bonds should be allowed to enjoy everything associated with his home-run milestone.

All the same, however, Burris believes that Commissioner Bud Selig was within his rights to decide not to attend the game at which Bonds hit the home run.

"If Selig is making a statement," Burris writes, "so be it."

He adds that sportswriters are also entitled to their opinions, and it is they who will decide Bonds' entry to or rejection from the Hall of Fame, whether or not he is further implicated in the steroid scandal.

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: FOUL ON BONDS, or post your own by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, September 23, 2007

SOUND OFF: SUPPLIES AND DEMAND

An office manager for a financial-services company has noticed that, every September, there is an unusual surge in the consumption of spiral notebooks, binders and colored pencils from the supply cabinet.

Chiefly, she says, these are requisitioned by executives who have school-age children. If it's OK for the executives to use company supplies for personal use, she wonders, isn't it all right for her to take a pair of scissors for use at home, if she needs one? Or a bottle of ibuprofen? Or a package of Sharpies?

Are both the executives and the office manager wrong to take office supplies? Or, if the executives pilfer, does that clear the way for others to pilfer as well? Or is it always wrong to take goods from the company office-supply cabinet for personal use?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: THINKING INSIDE THE BOX

A warm, inviting breeze rises from the ocean across the street from the condo that my reader and her husband recently sold to purchase a condo in a different part of the Hawaiian islands. Sunset strolls along the beach in this area can be spectacular.

So what does my reader's husband miss most about his former residence? His catalogs.

When they sold their condo -- to someone who does not plan to live in it, but rather to rent it out to vacationers -- they were required to turn over one complete set of keys, which they did.

My reader's husband decided to keep his extra mailbox key, however, so that he could return to the condo occasionally and check to see if any of his catalogs had arrived, since the U.S. Postal Service will not forward catalogs. When he checks, he sometimes leaves behind the catalogs addressed to him that he doesn't want, taking only those that interest him. He never tampers with mail addressed to anyone else.

"I told him that he couldn't check the mailbox any longer, even if he had a key," my reader writes, "because it didn't belong to him any longer."

She also worries that he may be committing a federal offense by giving himself access to someone else's mail.

"Is it right," she asks, "for him to go into that mailbox?"

I can understand, I guess, the burning desire not to miss the latest that Orvis has to offer in fly-fishing gear or to find exactly the right waffle iron from Williams Sonoma's most recent catalog.

But if the tug is that strong, my reader's husband should call the catalog companies and ask them to start sending their books to his new address. There is no ethical justification for him to be going into the new owner's mailbox, to retrieve catalogs or for any other purpose. Presumably he wouldn't use a spare set of door keys to enter his old condo and check around, so by the same logic he should not be using the key to a mailbox that is no longer his own.

And yes, according to Tim Harrington, a Boston-based public-information officer for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, he's likely violating federal law as well. Unlawful possession of a mailbox key for unauthorized purposes can result in jail time and a prison sentence of as long as 10 years, according to Title 18, Section 1704 of the United States Code.

"It's stupid, real stupid, and not worth it," Harrington says. "I hope to God that all he's doing is checking his catalogs."

It seems obvious that the stiff jail sentences are meant to deter people from stealing other people's mail, not to send catalog buffs to the slammer. But if any of the new owner's mail goes missing and my reader's husband is discovered to have been opening her locked mailbox, law-enforcement officers may have a hard time believing that he was simply checking up on his catalogs.

"It's not his box and he shouldn't be doing it," Harrington says, and I have to agree.

The right thing for my reader's husband to do is to dispose of the mailbox key or give it to the condo's new owner as soon as possible.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: THE RING OF TRUTH

Carol Musser was enjoying dinner with several companions at an upscale restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. When Musser excused herself to visit the ladies' room, she expected nothing out of the ordinary. She didn't get what she expected.

"While standing at the sink to wash my hands," she writes, "I looked up on the shelf to see a huge, sparkling diamond ring."

Suspecting that she might be the victim of some hidden-camera show, she carefully looked around the room. No cameras. Only two other women who joined her in ogling and admiring the ring.After returning to her table, she called over the restaurant's manager and explained the situation. He told her that he would retrieve the ring and put it in the restaurant's safe until it could be claimed by its rightful owner, which it was the following day.

Musser never considered keeping the ring, of course, but she now wonders if turning it over to the manager was the right thing to do. Well, it isn't she who wonders this so much as her dining companions and various friends with whom she's shared the story since. "Many said that I should have taken the ring home, called the restaurant and, when the owner contacted the restaurant, have had her call me," Musser writes.

Her friends believe that she gave up too much control when she gave the ring to the manager. Other than the manager's unsupported word, for example, how does Musser know that the ring ended up on the hand of its rightful owner? And what if the owner was willing to pay a reward for the return of the ring?

These considerations never crossed Musser's mind, so she'll never know. What she does want to know, though, is if she did the right thing by turning over the ring to the manager of the restaurant.

She did. That a potential reward, or possible doubts about the manager's trustworthiness, never even occurred to her attests to the fact that Musser's primary goal was to get the ring back to its rightful owner. She accomplished that, and wouldn't have done so any more easily or surely if she'd taken the ring home and relied on the manager to refer the owner of the lost ring to her. If she had been angling for a reward or considering keeping the ring for herself, an effort to gain the most control of the situation might have made sense. As matters were, however, she chose the most expeditious way to find the ring's owner.

There are untrustworthy characters in the world who might have pocketed the ring as soon as Musser handed it over, granted, and then lied about the owner having claimed it. But Musser has no reason to suspect that the manager of this restaurant was not to be trusted. Her experience has, well, a familiar ring to it. We can go through life suspecting everyone in our path of being out to deceive us, but if we do that we'll end up surrounded by people who also trust no one. Or we can choose to do the right thing and trust that those around us will, more often than not, choose to follow our example and do right as well.


c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

TELL ME YOUR TALES

Don't forget to send me your stories of that one defining ethical moment in your life that paints a picture of who you are -- or, conversely, that one moment that, if given the chance, you would most like to do over. Provide as much detail as possible, but keep your submission to no more than 300 words.

I'll run some of these stories in an upcoming column, and those whose stories are used in that column will receive a copy of my book, The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006) . Include your name, address and telephone number, and submit your story by Oct. 10 to: rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.

SOUND OFF: WHAT MAKES WATER PURE?

My readers generally agreed that bottled-water manufacturers should make it clearer when their water comes from the same source as tap water instead of from some mountainside spring. The fact that they don't, however, won't stop most of my readers from drinking it.

"To argue that (the source) shouldn't be on the label seems to be an argument for deception," writes Joe Read of Anaheim, Calif.

"Consumers deserve to know the source of bottled water in order to make the appropriate purchasing decisions," agrees Patrick Bouvier Fitzgerald Burris of Charlotte, N.C.


They'll get no argument from Dave Hosseini of Sacramento, Calif., but he's still drinking water.


"I am happy to have an option other than soft drinks at gas stations and other quick stops," Hosseini writes.

"I've held no illusions about Aquafina's water source," writes Susan Hammond of Irvine, Calif., "as the product I receive is bottled in Carson, Calif. -- which is pretty much industrial, commercial, residential flatland. Aquafina may be tap water, but its further processing...causes it to far exceed the taste of water from my own tap."

"It is too late to change our addiction to those little, handy (and reassuring) bottles," writes Carroll Straus of Orange County, Calif. "All we can do is demand petroleum-free bottles...and use common sense."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: BOTTLED OR TAP? or post your own here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

SOUND OFF: A MOTHER'S LETTERS

Penney Adams of Columbus, Ohio, couldn't help being troubled by a recent issue of Time that featured Mother Teresa on its cover. In an article about the publication of her letters, in which she confessed her spiritual doubts, Adams read that "she had requested that (the letters) be destroyed, but was overruled by her church." (Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith)

How ethical was it, Adams wondered, for the church not to destroy the letters? How ethical was it to let the letters be published? Knowing that Mother Teresa did not want her letters read by anyone else, would you read her published letters? Finally, knowing that some of her letters would be excerpted in the Time article, would it even be right to read the article about them?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at rightthing@nytimes.com.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

THE RIGHT THING: THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END, BUT DON'T SWEAT IT...

The president of a small sales company in the Midwest was distraught. As he stepped forward to address his assembled employees, they couldn't help but notice that he was choking back tears.

He told them that a major equipment company, one that represented the bulk of his small company's sales, had sent him a letter accusing the company of breach of contract.

"He informed us that everything would be OK and not to worry," one employee writes, "that the allegations were false."

He didn't tell his employees what the allegations were, however, and he didn't go into specifics about whether any of their jobs were in imminent danger. The meeting broke up, but several employees worried that there was more to the story than the president was telling them. They turned to the Internet, where they found documents relating to a lawsuit that the large company had filed against their own company, as well as a breach-of-contract letter with a termination date to end the two companies' contract. The large company subsequently had withdrawn its lawsuit. However, it had stated its intention to send a new breach-of-contract letter with a new termination date.

If the contract between the major company and my reader's company were terminated, he says, about 70 people would probably lose their jobs immediately.

"Does the president of the company owe his employees an explanation of the problem?" he asks. "And are we entitled to know the new termination date?"

From a management perspective, to raise the specter of potential doom -- but to do so in broad terms, without letting employees know the specifics of the situation -- does little more than create an atmosphere fraught with free-floating anxiety. Seeing the president on the brink of tears, even if he's telling them not to worry, does little to shore up employees' confidence in the health of the company or of their jobs. They're left wondering what, if anything, they should be doing to help the company or, more likely, how quickly they can find a job at a more stable place.

Given that the breach-of-contract letter has been withdrawn and no termination date is currently proposed, the president might simply keep the situation to himself until something definite takes place. It wouldn't be at all unethical to do so.

If he does choose to make the situation known to his staff, however, it isn't fair to simply raise the specter of mass layoffs without any concrete information. He might, instead, engage his employees in helping to find a solution to the problem. Or he could tell them that management is addressing the problem and outline its strategy to rebuild the relationship between the companies, find new business or otherwise carry on. Either would be the right thing to do.

The wrong thing to do is to spread panic and then go back into his office and close the door. To go halfway isn't fair to anyone in the situation. Even if the president actually does have a plan to save those 70 jobs that my reader assumes will be cut, his staff doesn't know it. A big risk of raising a specter but not leveling with the employees on the details is that they, like my reader and some of his colleagues, may assume the worst.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

Sunday, September 02, 2007

THE RIGHT THING: PAYING UP EVEN WHEN I DIDN'T HAVE TO

Last week, I faced the choice of whether to take advantage of someone's trust in my decision to treat him fairly even when I didn't have to.

It was Wednesday and it started out as most Wednesdays do. I woke up early, made coffee, and then ventured outside to retrieve the morning newspapers. After reading the newspapers and ingesting enough coffee to get me through the morning, I went to my office, turned on my computer, and clicked on the icon to check my e-mail. That's when my morning gave way to two days of abject frustration.

Instead of my e-mail launching, I received the message that it could not be started because my MSOE.dll couldn't be loaded. I was clueless about MSOE.dll's, but I knew I couldn't access any e-mail stored on my computer. The trouble is that most of the e-mail I need to do my work is stored on my computer.

I rebooted to see if it was a momentary lapse of a finicky computer. No luck. I searched official support bulletin boards for solutions. Nothing. I spent a few dollars on utility software programs that promised fixes. Nothing eased my pain.

Then on the morning of MSOE.dll Death Watch Day Two, through a purely serendipitous search, I came across a program written by a guy based somewhere in Europe that claimed to address the exact error message flashing on my screen. To download his program I had to pay first. But he let buyers set the price.

"I trust people," he wrote on his website. "Ask yourself how much time this utility has saved you.... I trust it's really easy for you to decide the amount!"

I had been agonizingly trying to find a way into my e-mail for two days and was dubious about this guy's product. I'd already laid out enough cash and time for other products that failed. Why would this product do any better? I paid $1 and would decide later if I would fork over any more.

I downloaded and ran the software. No fireworks, bells, or sirens followed. But when I clicked on my e-mail icon, it launched for the first time in two days. Just as the programmer had promised, it was repaired.

My decision now was whether to pay him more than the $1 I'd already paid. If I didn't, it wasn't as if he was going to be coming after me for more cash. He didn't know me. I didn't know him.

But I did know that his software solved the problem I had been struggling with for two days. I knew he placed his trust in his customers to pay him what they believed his software to be worth. If it hadn't worked, I wouldn't have added anything to what I'd paid. But since it worked, I added $19 to the amount I'd already paid, bringing the total to the retail price a distributor he sometimes used charged for the product. I didn't have to, but it was the right thing to do.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

NOTE: The software I mention in the column is called "OUTLOOK EXPRESS MAIL SALVATION/MIGRATION." You can find it at the www.softlakecity.com or Microsoft Outlook Express Repair Utility.


SOUND OFF: PREMATURE POTTER

None of my readers thought the gentleman who received his copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before its official release date was obligated to send it back. Here's what some thought:
"He should have just kept the book, but not read it or said anything about it to anyone, until the official release date," writes Laura Blumberg of Santa Ana, Calif.


Tilly Alldredge of Laguna Niguel, Calif., and Mary Jan Rosenak of Madison, Wis., thought it was fine for him to read the book, but not to divulge the ending. "Don't spoil it for others," Rosenak writes.

"If he sent it back to the seller, they'd probably think he's just an idiot," writes Burl Estes of Mission Viejo, Calif. "I was more disturbed by the fact that individuals who received the copies early sold them on eBay for hundreds of dollars," writes Dorothy Pittman, owner of a bookstore in Carrollton, Ga. (Horton's Books and Gifts - Home) She was particularly disturbed about the gentleman who sold an early copy to Publishers Weekly. (EBay Pulls Harry Potter 7 Listing--Hours After Sale Was Completed ...) "That action alone speaks volumes about the current ethical climate."

Check out other opinions at SOUND OFF: PREMATURE MAGIC, or post your own here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to rightthing@nytimes.com or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.

c.2007 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)